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Wednesday 1 July 2009

400 Miles From Goa - Konkani Humour Prospers

How does one define the 'richness' of a particular language?

This question has long haunted me and I went about looking for the answer. Linguists might argue that a language is 'rich' only if

* It has a lot of unique words in circulation and can express itself in various ways to convey the same meaning

* It has its nuances, the ability to express a situation in different words, each of which conveys a different meaning when used in a different context.

* It has a highly developed grammar system

But I beg to differ. There is one additional aspect that is missing in the above list. The lacuna in the above argument is the essence and importance of humour in a language, especially in its day to day usage. On a lighter vein, the ability of a language to entwine humour into it is what appeals most to me. That according to me is the most important factor that makes a language rich.

The South Canarese Konkani speakers are a lucky lot. They are blessed with the most fertile of soils, ample rainfall, pristine natural beauty and the gift of the sea. In this microcosm, they are a humorous lot. The gift of abundance has helped them take life lightly. They call themselves the Amchigele or in short the Amchis. This literally translates to 'my people'. Humour is an important part of an Amchi's life. Every alternate sentence spoken is assuredly funny or sarcastic in some way. Effortless and spontaneous humour is their speciality. There is humour in happiness and sarcasm in sadness.

Take for instance humour related to food, a real passion among the Amchis. When it comes to food, nothing less than perfect would do. Imagine serving him stale food. He would immediately retaliate with a cryptic verbal weapon of mass destruction. Take for example the saying 'raa.ndayi ullaitaa aassa', which literally translates to 'the curry is talking'. This saying is generally used to describe a curry that is spoilt or soured, especially so when it is served the day after it is cooked. It’s kind of funny and takes the weight off the situation of having a curry that is no longer edible. The pain of the loss of the curry is lightened and the humour ensures that the loss no longer hurts.

When an Amchi lands himself into problems while having good intentions, he describes it rather strangely as, ‘baDDi diivnu peTTa khaavche’, which literally translates to ‘give a stick to someone and in turn get beaten’.

Another saying that needs mention is 'raatri paLayile baayi.ntu, disaa vachchunu poDche', which literally translates to 'fall during the day into a well which was seen in the night'. The context of this usage is that of committing a mistake in spite of having foreseen the consequences. This is just one of the many ways of putting the point across in the most humorous way possible. The list of sayings is seemingly endless.

Two Amchis talking to each other in the ubiquitous tea stall are like stand-up comedians taking part in any of the numerous talent search competitions. They entertain not only themselves but also the people around them. The more humorous an Amchi is discussing his mundane life, the more popular he gets to be in the community.

The Amchigele society too does its bit to encourage humour among its fellow men and women. A particularly funny Amchi is spoken of in high regard, 'he's a glib talker', 'she's a funny woman', 'don't mess with him, as he will verbally tear you to bits'. This social backing ends up keeping the tradition of humour alive. Other societies might dislike or put down humorous talk as arrogant, uncouth or bordering on the rude. Other societies frown upon this kind of witty and spontaneous humour. However, this is not so with the Canarese Amchis. They know how to take it with a pinch of salt. Given a choice, they prefer to encourage this sort of behaviour, instead of discouraging it, like other societies would normally have done.

In retrospect, there are historical reasons explaining why the Amchis mastered this art form. Far away from Goa in the midst of the Tulu and Kannada speaking majority, it does make sense to use cryptic descriptions of situations. When in the company of the non-Amchis, the message would be conveyed but the literal translations would not mean much to the uninitiated, even if the words are comprehensible. Much like the Cockney rhyming slang that originated in the East End of London. The words get across, but to the crowd which is not 'into' it, it makes no sense at all.

The Amchis might own Formula One teams, IPL teams, run the best of banks in India, be an archetype of entrepreneurship, but serious talk is left behind at the work place. When an Amchi meets another Amchi, there's always time for some humorous and senseless banter. This of course can only happen with the aid of a 'rich' language. 400 miles away from Goa, the motherland of the Konkani speakers, humour prospers!

© Roshan Pai Ramesh


The author is the Chief Editor of the ‘Konkani Dictionary Project’ hosted online at <>. A comprehensive list of South Canarese Konkani sayings, proverbs, metaphors, idioms and euphemisms can be found on the site.

This article was originally written by the author for 'Goa Info' a quarterly magazine published in Goa.

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